How will COVID-19 affect future health care? Local leaders discuss telehealth, structural changes to facilities and more

photo by: Chris Conde

LMH Health is pictured in a file photo from October 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused LMH Health CEO and President Russ Johnson to become acutely aware of ways in which people facilitate transmission inadvertently in his hospital. Doorknobs and elevator buttons, for example, are two things Johnson mentioned that contribute to the “constant” unintentional transmission.

So when asked how health care might change after the pandemic, Johnson said that he expects something even as seemingly mundane as the way facilities are designed to be impacted.

That’s also something Robyn Coventon and her team at Heartland Community Health Center have discussed as they plan their new building.

“How do you build it so that whatever pandemic, whatever health issue that comes up, you’re able to respond to it?” said Coventon, Heartland’s CEO.

Minimizing touch points and implementing check-in kiosks are two things on Coventon’s mind. Johnson noted the potential for more automatic doors.

But the COVID-19 pandemic will impact more than just building structure and design. Johnson, Coventon and Linda Craig, director of clinic services at Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, all mentioned that they expect there to be a bigger emphasis on telehealth: the use of telecommunications technology to support long-distance clinical care.

“It’s really become clear that telehealth is not only about the convenience of consumers and patients,” Johnson said. “It also adds an enormous flexibility and additional capability for a health system to adjust to demand changes or circumstantial changes.”

Johnson said the hospital has had a telehealth strategy in place for the past year and a half, but that this pandemic has significantly improved the efforts.

“With this new circumstance we have had significantly more interest by clinicians because they want to take care of their patients and it’s the only way to do it,” he said, noting that the pandemic has actually “given us a quantum leap forward in that effort and it’s one we should not let go back.”

Coventon said that, before the pandemic, telehealth was on the horizon. Then, when the coronavirus hit, “boom, one week, we’re up and running.”

She also expects there to be a push to maintain reimbursement for telehealth services after the pandemic. Many insurance companies, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, have expanded their coverage to include the virtual consultations.

“We’ve been waiting years for that and this pandemic opened up the doors for it,” said Craig.

Johnson said that telehealth could soon become so connected with traditional health care that the term could become meaningless.

“Pretty soon we’re not even going to call telehealth telehealth. It’s just going to be part of health,” he said.

In addition discussing how health care might change after the pandemic, Craig mentioned some ways she thinks life in general might change. She said she believes people will never fully return to the way they lived before COVID-19.

Craig expects that recommendations to wear masks and take people’s temperatures before they enter businesses will be long-lasting. She said she imagines concerts and other venues will restrict crowd sizes. And she’s worried about how these measures will affect mental health.

If there’s a silver lining to the situation, she said it’s that she believes the focus that needed to have always been placed on mental health will become a reality.

Craig also said she believes the current crisis will positively affect employer-employee relations as relates to sickness. Employees will feel less guilty about deciding to stay home when sick, and employers will realize that working from home is an efficient reality, Craig contends.

All three health care professionals agreed that the pandemic has cast a light on the benefits of having a collaborative system of care.

Coventon said that the pandemic has reinforced how well Lawrence responds as a community, and Johnson said he believes the Unified Command structure has worked well. The Unified Command includes leaders from Douglas County, the city of Lawrence and LMH Health. Johnson hopes to see continued community collaboration in the future.

In the past, Johnson said health care providers in the city and county were more focused on their boundaries and sectors of care.

“I think historically we have maybe focused on differences and those have been barriers to being as effective as we can as a community,” Johnson said. But the pandemic has shown how “much more symbiotic” the health care system in the city and county can be.

In the midst of the pandemic, Johnson keeps telling his staff, “A challenge faced alone is a crisis. A crisis faced together is a challenge.”


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